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LIFE Courses

Note: My LIFE courses have a website: See that site for information about my courses.

LIFE is The LIFE (Learning Is ForEver) Institute of Ryerson University. It's the largest senior learning institute in Canada, with over 1,500 active members. You have to be 50 or older and pay a modest annual fee to join and take classes. Dozens of inexpensive non-credit courses are offered in the Fall, Winter and Spring terms. Courses meet once a week for 4, 6, 8 or 10 weeks and are led by volunteer LIFE members or by professional lecturers.

Ryerson University is just down the street from our Toronto condo. I discovered LIFE almost by accident. I joined and took the first few LIFE courses. The courses were a mixed bag, which is only to be expected given the diversity of membership and the diversity of course leaders. But I saw a personal opportunity. Leading classes has been a part of my professional life for years, as an academic and as a professional talking to other professionals. I took the plunge and offered to lead my first LIFE class.

I've now lead a variety of LIFE courses on everything from philosophy to urban planning, technology and music. My motivation has always been a personal desire to learn more about a subject. For me, leading a class is an excellent way to learn more about a subject. First, there's the discipline of planning the sessions. I'm led to what could be called the “architecture” of the subject. Then there's the test of understanding which comes with presenting material to fellow seniors, some of whom may have considerable professional experience in the subject.

When I led academic courses or professional courses, the students' mastery of the material was a keyNote: My LIFE courses have their own website: This is a general blog entry about the courses offered by Ryerson's LIFE Institute. test of success. The nature and quality of my presentations would have an impact on course success, but the students' understanding was always the central concern. At LIFE, course success rests on a different foundation. Yes, LIFE courses need to present their material in an intelligible way, they do need to be enlightening. But they also need to be both engaging and entertaining.

Different LIFE courses will offer a varied mix of enlightenment, engagement and entertainment, but all successful LIFE courses need to offer all three. That's not quite true. If a course is entertaining enough, it doesn't have to be very engaging. That's not a major consideration for me because I would not feel good about predicating course success on primarily being entertaining. My goal in leading LIFE courses is to offer all three. But it took me a little while to recognize the importance of engagement and entertainment.

Taking LIFE courses needs to be intrinsically rewarding. What happens in the classroom is really important. What can be done with the material presented is less so. Again, there are exceptions to any such blanket pronouncement, but for most LIFE courses, the classroom experience is key. How to develop engaging and entertaining classroom experiences? YouTube showed me one way to make that happen.

YouTube is a humongous library of video files on almost all conceivable subjects, and is adding dozens of hours of new video every minute of every day. One effective way to increase the entertainment value of the classroom experience is to liven the presentation with selected clips drawn from that humongous library. I find there is an important secondary benefit in using YouTube clips – students in the class can follow up by viewing the entire video file if they're really interested in the material.

In my experience, the engagement element is very subject dependent. It critically depends on the participants knowledge before they enter the classroom. The best discussions happen when all of the participants are reasonably well informed. A LIFE course on current events would be an example of a course in which all classroom participants could be expected to be reasonably well-informed (else why would they even consider taking such a course). A LIFE course on baroque music is much less likely to have a classroom full of reasonably well-informed people. But even in such a course, some discussion and some comment can enliven and engage.

Bottom line is that unless the course leader is a professional entertainer, successful LIFE courses need to add elements to the course with clear entertainment value. I've found both YouTube and classroom guests can add effective entertainment. YouTube is freely available to all LIFE course leaders. Getting good classroom guests depends on personal contacts. The larger point is that successful LIFE courses pay attention to entertainment.

Leading LIFE courses has led me into interesting and personally valuable areas. My LIFE urban planning courses have led me to a level of understanding that makes me a more effective advocate for positive neighbourhood change. The one philosophy course that I led gave me a far better appreciation for what can make life meaningful. I'm mulling over the idea of a LIFE course that would combine urban planning and philosophy – a mix of self, communities that enable that self to emerge and “places” that ground communities and their members.

The challenge I face in the coming term – Winter 2016 – is to provide a meaningful and entertaining course on The String Quartet. I've already committed to lead the course and LIFE members have already signed up for the course. I've long known that some of the finest compositions by some of our best composers have been string quartets. Why is that? What's special about the string quartet? And then, how to “package” 6 string quartet sessions that will enlighten, engage and entertain?

Leading a LIFE class is challenging, but can be deeply rewarding. LIFE is working on ways to reduce the initial learning curve for class leaders. If you think you might want to lead a LIFE course, give me a call (416-769-1885), or call the LIFE office (416-979-5000 ext. 6989).